Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Ascension Day? What's that?

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Acts 1:9-11

I would guess that most ordinary Christians barely give a thought to the “ascension” of Jesus - the occasion when he was “taken up” (or “ascended”) into heaven.

There are probably two main reasons for this.

First, to be fair, the New Testament barely mentions it. Of the Gospel writers, only Luke describes it - here, in Acts 1, and, even more briefly, at the very end of Luke 24. Apart from that, there are just brief references to it scattered in the various New Testament letters.

Second, it didn’t take place on a Sunday. So while churches very naturally celebrate Easter Sunday for Jesus’ resurrection, and Whit Sunday, or Pentecost, for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Ascension is rather tucked away: on a Thursday, in fact - forty days after Easter, and eleven days before Pentecost. Easy to miss.

So let’s not feel too guilty if we have given little thought to the Ascension! But the fact is that - well, it happened, so it can only be good to reflect on it.

Let’s ask the question: What does this strange and supernatural event mean, and what difference does it make?

Here are a handful of answers to that question.

First, it signifies that Jesus’ work on earth was over.

As he died on the cross Jesus shouted “It is finished”. By paying the price for our sins he had completed the work of reconciling humankind to God.

But Jesus remained on earth - or, at least, appeared on earth - for some six weeks after his death and resurrection, and he still had work to do - especially in giving final teaching to his apostles.

Ascension Day marks the fact that that work too was finished - and never from that day to this has Jesus ever been seen on earth. A whole era was over and a new one began - history turned on a massive hinge.

Second, it confirms that, as Paul said later, “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Our eyes haven’t seen Jesus, nor have our ears heard him. But we are called to believe in him and trust him every minute of every day, and it is in so doing that we find him to be a living reality.

Third, it comforts us with the hope of one day joining him.

Before he went to the cross Jesus spent time reassuring his disciples, who were understandably troubled. Among the many things he said were these words about “my Father’s house”: “I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). He left the disciples not in order to abandon them, but in order to pave the way for them - a great assurance for us when we think about death.

Fourth, it opened up a whole new ministry for Jesus.
It’s natural for us to ask “What exactly is Jesus doing in heaven?”

Well, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that “he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12). Metaphorical language, of course, akin to the Book of Revelation.

But it conveys the fact that Jesus really is Lord, and reigns with his heavenly Father over the whole of creation. The suffering, crucified Jesus is Lord of all! - and a day is coming when every knee will bow to him (Philippians 2:10).

There is another ministry too in which the ascended Jesus is engaged. Stressing his priestly role, the writer to the Hebrews says: “he always lives to intercede” for us (Hebrews 7:25).

I must admit that I’m not very clear exactly how to imagine this. But who cares! - the message is that in Jesus we have an eternal, heavenly high priest who prays to God the Father on our behalf. He is on our side! - let’s remember that when we are feeling low.

The Ascension, then, brings to mind these four great truths - plus others there is no time to mention.

Why not take a few minutes to pray through them?

But I’ve left till last one other vital thing: Jesus’ ascension makes possible the coming of the Holy Spirit on the infant church.

Here is more of his farewell teaching to the apostles: “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate [that is, the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

“It is for your good that I am going away”! Jesus blesses us by “leaving” us! The apostles are being encouraged to look forward to the coming of the Spirit.

And shouldn't we do the same?

So... when Ascension Day comes (Thursday 30 May this year), take time to reflect on this pivotal event - and let it whet your appetite for the awesome events of 9 June, Holy Spirit Sunday.

Heavenly Father, thank you that, before he returned to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples such rich and wonderful promises. Much as I would love to have seen the earthly Jesus, help me to understand that, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I am in fact better off without his physical presence. Amen.

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